Sunday, June 26, 2011

True to Dixie and Moses: Yankees, White Trash, Jews and the Lost Cause, Part II

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, 'White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To celebrate the fifth anniversary of that book, I am serializing "White Metropolis." Here, I discuss how regional reconciliation and the Neo-Confederate myth of the "Lost Cause" victimized African Americans in Dallas and elsewhere after Reconstruction.

With Benjamin Harrison's ascension to the presidency in 1877, the North surrendered any active role in protecting black civil rights in the South. Across the former Confederacy, elites attempted to cool regional hostilities to attract Northern investment. Atlanta regional propagandists preceded Texas elites in this regard. Atlanta served as the birthplace of the "New South," a public relations concoction of Southern businessmen, journalists and politicians eager to whitewash the region's tortured past and to convince the rest of the world that the former Confederacy was a safe place to invest.

Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, served as chief mouthpiece for the new order. A former correspondent for Northern newspapers, the Southern-born Grady tirelessly promoted industrialization and agricultural diversity as a means of breaking the region's economic dependency on the North. He also supported what he considered racial cooperation, ending racial violence and encouraging black economic advancement as long as it occurred within the context of segregation. Praising Northern Civil War heroes like Abraham Lincoln and William Sherman before Northern audiences,

Grady insisted that the South had nothing to apologize for regarding its past, but still thanked God for ending slavery. Because of this divine intervention, Grady argued, ". . . the American Union was saved from the wreck of war." Such an approach, historian Edward L. Ayers argued, allowed Grady to "have it both ways, to be proudly Southern and yet partake of the new [Northern-funded] industrial bounty." Men like Grady made possible the explosive growth of cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston in the late nineteenth century.

In recalling the troubled past, Southern elites focused on the common experience of Civil War battlefield valor and shared "Anglo-Saxonism." They settled on a plastic racial formulation that partially ignored regional or religious identity. Whiteness would be defined as, first, the absence of blackness, and, second, the absence of a specific culture and identity. Jews, lighter-skinned Mexicans and others could win at least partial white status by surrendering their specific languages and cultures in return for an amorphous "Americanism."

The shapelessness of white identity made its possession more uncertain while the consequence of losing it remained terrible. As historian David Roediger wrote, "Whiteness describes . . . the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore the terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn't and on whom one can hold back." If whiteness meant the absence of culture, however, it couldn't be tied specifically to a Southern regional identity. To construct whiteness, regional elites at first had to redefine Southerness.

In post-Civil War Dallas, the city developed an elaborate Lost Cause mythology, abundantly commemorating the city's noble Confederate past. Such memorials and observances suggested that white Southerners were a uniquely virtuous people in a sinful world marked, like the Old Testament Hebrews, for testing by God. Dallas hosted a Confederate veterans reunion in 1892 that drew between 20,000 and 30,000 people. In 1897, the Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled a massive Confederate monument at City Park in a solemn ceremony attended by the widow of wartime hero Stonewall Jackson and the daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The presence of so many Northerners in the city, however, uniquely shaped the Lost Cause mythology in Dallas. A local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Northern Civil War veterans' organization, formed in 1885 with 250 members and grew, in seven years to 2,000 members statewide, most of whom lived in the East and North Central sections of the state. These old Union soldiers made their large presence felt at the city's war commemorations.

Paradoxically, the Lost Cause civil religion promoted regional reconciliation across the South. Lost Cause observances, Dallas elites carefully pointed out, were made "in no spirit of sectionalism . . . " A "good and fraternal feeling" existed between the "old soldiers of the late war," one observer claimed. Confederate veterans invited their Union peers to participate in the 1897 unveiling of the Confederate Memorial, a ceremony in which "Texas flags and tattered, worn Confederate flags, and the flag of 'Old Glory,' waived together in patriotic harmony," as Phil Lindsley noted.

Union and Confederate veterans shared a heritage of bravery, Union veteran Col. W.D. Wylie, told the assembled crowd at the city's 1887 Memorial Day observance. "To-day we have no North, no South, no East, no West, but one common country, one common object, i.e. the paying tribute to our heroic dead," Wylie said. In Dallas, Civil War commemorations honored not only Southern icons like Robert E. Lee, but Northern heroes as well. "I rejoice that a reunited people speak of [Northern Civil War President Abraham] Lincoln in words of blessing," Col. W.L. Crawford, a Confederate veteran, said at an 1890 Memorial Day gathering. " . . . As we look to Lincoln let us remember every kind and generous act he did — that greatest of great men . . ."

Echoing the sentiments of Henry Grady, men like Crawford argued that the North had acted as an instrument of divine will and saved the South from the onus of slavery. Although Southern slavery had been benign and uplifting for blacks, the mythology insisted, it had been a terrible financial and emotional burden on Southern whites. By abolishing slavery, the North allowed for the development of a Southern white working class and a more perfect and complete racial separation.

"Slavery abolished, I rejoice with you in these things," Crawford, a former soldier from Texas, said at the 1890 rally. " . . . [W]e are thankful that [from the war] . . . came . . . a higher salvation — a better promise than the man who participated in it ever dreamed of." The tragedy of the Civil War, the Lost Cause cult maintained, was that Anglo-Saxons had butchered each other over the slavery issue, a slaughter instigated by abolitionist fanatics portrayed as cynical, alien outsiders exploiting the kindness some whites felt towards slaves. Northerners and Southerners now knew they could live in harmony if only Northerners conceded the wisdom of Southern policies regarding the "Negro problem."

Events in Dallas reflected a larger trend across the new urban South. The explosive economic growth of some Southern cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seemed to confirm the wisdom of the Lost Cause priesthood. Easing regional tensions opened the way for the federal government to dig a ship channel through Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou, a project that culminated in the 1914 opening of the Houston Ship Channel. Houston became one of the top three deep-water ports in the United States, which tied the city fast to the world economy, especially as Texas rose as a major oil supplier.

By the early twentieth century Houston was on its way to becoming one of the world’s wealthiest cities. As would happen in Dallas, even as its economy became more complex, Houston and the Texas coast became a magnet for both Northern capital and immigrants from the deep South and Europe. Poles, Sicilians, Jews and “white trash” added complexity to Houston’s hierarchy. As the economy expanded, class conflict intensified and Anglo workers asserted racial privilege over their off-white competitors.

In their enthusiasm to remake Atlanta as the capital of the New South, residents there leveled the 400 antebellum homes and buildings left behind by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s torch-bearing troops at the end of the Civil War. The city would eventually strike some as so unlike Dixie that one Southern writer, John Shelton Reed commented, "Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter million Confederate soldiers died to prevent.”

Already a key railway junction before the war, Atlantans ruthlessly plowed over the Confederate past as the city transformed into a Southern metropolis. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Atlanta was the intersection of eleven key railroads, a distribution center between the Tennessee Valley and the East Coast, a regional banking center, and home to at least one soon-to-be international business, the Coca-Cola company. As in Dallas, the new architecture in Atlanta seemed completely cut from its geographic moorings. Atlanta elites, like their Dallas peers, tirelessly erased evidence of past racial conflict, promoting their overgrown town as a city “too busy to hate.”

This urban makeover drew both Northern immigrants and Northern money to the “Gateway City." Industrialization and population growth narrowed the poverty gap between North and South. In 1900, per capita income in the South was half of the national average. At the start of World War II four decades later, Southern per capita income had climbed to two-thirds the national average.

African Americans found themselves the chief victims of this North-South reconciliation. Both Northern and Southern whites shared a racial identity and the common interest of keeping blacks in their place, the Lost Cause priesthood proclaimed. Speaking in Texas to a mixed crowd of Northern and Southern war veterans, W.L. Crawford declared, "We are no longer Federals and Confederates. We are the mightiest race of people into whose hands the God of the inevitable ever gave control of the destinies of nation or men, wrung from the Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Celts — a people born to rule wherever they may be domiciled . . . We are to-day the superior of the earth."

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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